Something of a naive optimism manifests itself in the thinking of many Christians in North America. Maybe this has always been the case and I’ve just begun taking note; or, maybe it’s something unique to people who live in a society that paints itself as being far more virtuous than it actually is. Frequently this optimism is defended under the notion of “love believing all things” and “hoping all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Love most certainly does believe and hope all things; but love is not naive. Such naïveté betrays itself whenever some horrific act occurs in the public realm, whenever a believer in the public square commits a scandalous sin or when someone we know falls from grace. It also appears when someone in the church–who has been an otherwise faithful member–causes division or schism. It exposes itself when someone is duped in a business transaction or when the children of believers begin to rebel. When news of these things surface, those who are marked by a nonchalant viridity say such things as, “How could he do such a thing?” or “I can’t believe that she did that!” The truth is that nothing should surprise the Christian. If we know what the Scriptures teach about man, about the world and about the weakness of believers, we should be prepared for anything. If we recognize the call of Scripture to get a wise and discerning heart, we should heed that call; and, if we consider the Savior and His interactions, we should seek to learn from Him how to conduct ourselves during the time of our sojourn in the world. Here are three reasons why nothing should surprise us:
1. The Scriptural teaching on depravity.
We all love to paint things as looking better than they actually do. We do this in the physical realm; and, sadly, we do it in the spiritual realm. But the Scriptures do not, for one minute, encourage us to do so. In fact, the Scriptures pull away the veneer of morality and dignity and show human nature in the grotesqueness of its raw form. The prophet Isaiah summed up the spiritual condition of the natural man by throwing it under the figure of a fully diseased individual: “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil” (Isaiah 1:6); the Prophet Jeremiah asked the rhetorical question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23); and, the Apostle Paul–citing the Psalmist–made it as clear as possible when he wrote, “all…are under sin, as it is written:
‘None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.’
‘Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’
‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.’
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes'” (Rom. 3:9-18).
While the Bible emphatically teaches the pervasive depravity of man by nature, it also teaches a relative depravity in the life of a believer. The believer has been raised up with Christ and has been made a new creature, but he still has indwelling sin and a battle between the flesh and the Spirit–between the old man and the new man–raging within. While the believer is called to live out the holiness that Christ purchased for and supplies to us, the believer can commit any sin that an unbeliever can commit. This is amply witnessed to by the great sins of the saints recorded for us in the pages of Scripture. This is the greatest reason why nothing should surprise us.
2. The Scriptural teaching on wisdom.
The Scriptures also teach us about the wisdom that is needed to navigate through this depraved world on our way to glory. Every book of the Bible is given by God to “make us wise unto salvation;” but a special place is given to the role of wisdom in the life of the believer in the pages of the Proverbs.
The Proverbs give us 10 father-to-son talks in which the father is teaching his son to be discerning. There is no room for naive optimism in these talks; they are serious and strong, raw and real. In fact, training our children to be discerning and wise is one of the foremost callings that God has given us as parents. Sinclair Ferguson explains how vital is it for us to get wisdom and to nurture it in our children:
Part of your primary responsibility of a father teaching your children is that the goal you have in view is that your child is going to be wise—wiser than his teacher, as the Psalmist says—but certainly wiser than unbelievers. I wonder if that is your great priority in life—to have wise children. You see, you could always have other priorities for your children than you have for yourself, but you could never have this priority for your child unless it was your own priority—to say, ‘I want to be a wise man, I want to know what Paul means when he says that the Scriptures are able to make me wise for salvation.’
And one of the fascinating things about the series of ten talks that the book of Proverbs begins with is that the father is not only teaching the child what wisdom is—discernment, seeing through things to what they really are, seeing through situations to what they really are–but he teaches his child to be wise particularly about people—not just about the words that people use, but to be discerning about the spirit and the tendency that people have. And that’s why so often early in these chapters there are personifications—there are people who appear. And you see, the 13 year old boy, the14 year old boy does not yet have the experience to be able to explain why it is that this is wisdom and why it is that this is folly; but something a 14 year old boy certainly can have is a developed instinct, and instinct that has been developed by the Spirit and the Word of God to be able to say, ‘I don’t know what it is but there’s something wrong about that person.’1
The godly man being able to perceive the craftiness of the adulterous woman (or whatever evil is personified under that figure) or being able to spot greed (Prov. 1:19; 15:27) and violence (Prov. 1:11; 6:17) in the intentions of those around him is part and parcel of what it means to be a wise and discerning man. There is no way for us to keep ourselves from sin unless we cultivate this spiritual wisdom and discernment from a diligent and prayerful use of the Scriptures. This is yet another reason why nothing should surprise us.
3. The Scriptural Example of Jesus.
The Savior was an incredibly complex individual–to say the least. However, He never embraced a naive optimism or a nascent pessimism. At the core, Jesus was the greatest realist. He never allowed the Sadducees or the Pharisees to “pull one over” on Him. He often corrected those He was around when he perceived what they were thinking. Though He is the infinite and eternal Son of God, He laid aside the privilege of access to the Divine attributes in the days of His flesh, and, as Luke tells us, “He grew in wisdom and stature…” (Luke 2:40; 52). Ferguson makes the astute observation about the discernment of the Lord Jesus when he states the following:
Have you ever met anyone of whom you can say, ‘He can read someone like an open book’…Now that’s wisdom—not just, you see, being able to do things well (we sometimes say that’s what wisdom is, accomplishing the best ends by the best possible means)—but discerning people, the supreme example of that is our Lord Jesus Christ…End of the second chapter of John’s Gospel, setting up, teeing up his encounter with Nicodemus—He saw right through Nicodemus. And you remember how John ends the previous chapter by saying, ‘Jesus didn’t entrust himself to men because he knew what was in them.’ I don’t think, for a moment, that’s speaking about some unique, supernatural knowledge Jesus had. I think that was the fruit of the fact that He grew in wisdom. From the age of 12, He was growing in wisdom. He was wiser when He was 13 than He was when He was 12. If you don’t believe that and understand that, you neither believe nor understand the Jesus of the Bible. And He was wiser than He was at 30. And the way in which His wisdom was manifested was that He could read people like an open book. He had absorbed the Scriptures. I personally believe He knew the whole of the Scripture off by heart; and not only off by heart, but He had absorbed—not only their truth, but their spirit and their balance, and had learned to apply them to every particular situation.2
Jesus exemplifies, in Himself, the combination of learning all that the Scripture says about human depravity and of gleaning the wisdom (which kept him from committing the least hint of sin) that is needed to live a life that is pleasing to the Father and a life that is careful in its interactions with men. Nothing surprised the Savior. Nothing caught Him off guard. Jesus knew what sin was and knew what it would cost to forgive and cleanse His people of it. Jesus was not only discerning with regard to man, He was discerning with regard to the justice of God. He stared into the cup of God’s wrath and pressed through the agony of soul in order to drink it for the glory of His Father and for the redemption of His people. The fact that nothing surprised the Savior is why nothing should surprise us.
May God give us hearts and minds that know the reality of depravity, that embrace wisdom and that gain a sight of the Savior so that we will be prepared to face anything at any time without being surprised.
1. An excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson’s 2006 lecture, “The Man of the House” (delivered at Mitchell Rd. PCA in Greenville, SC).